Tunisians On the Couch in “Arab Blues”

15 July, 2022
Arab Blues or Un divan à Tunis star­ring Gol­shifteh Fara­hani is avail­able on VOD.

 

Arab Blues (Un divan à Tunis) 2019
com­e­dy, dra­ma, French and Ara­bic, with Eng­lish subtitles
Direct­ed by Manele Labi­di
Run­ning time 1 hour 28 minutes

 

Mischa Geracoulis

 

In Arab Blues, near­ly ten years have passed since the self-immo­la­tion of Mohamed Bouaz­izi that fueled Tunisia’s Jas­mine Rev­o­lu­tion, and deposed the country’s long­time dic­ta­tor, Ben Ali.  While life in the bur­geon­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic Tunisia is still frag­ile, Sel­ma, a Tunisian-born French cit­i­zen, is return­ing to Tunis at long last. Sus­pi­cious of her solo return to Tunis, her uncle, aunt, and cousins won­der if Sel­ma is on drugs, on the run, a Mossad agent, or maybe preg­nant. And, why, they grill her, isn’t she mar­ried yet? Why does she “dress like a guy,” have pierc­ings, tat­toos, and unruly hair? 

Scenes of the city depict crowds, con­fu­sion, graf­fi­tied build­ings with rev­o­lu­tion­ary slo­gans and the rather ubiq­ui­tous Tunisie libre (“free Tunisia”). Selma’s fam­i­ly can’t fath­om her trad­ing Paris for Tunis, the very place that they want­ed to leave. Look­ing every bit the Parisian intel­lec­tu­al, Gol­shifteh Fara­hani plays the self-pos­sessed and seri­ous Sel­ma, who, much to her family’s dis­ap­proval, is intent on open­ing a psy­cho­analy­sis prac­tice in Tunis. Against the family’s objec­tions, she moves her­self into their apart­ment com­plex, and sets up shop in the rooftop flat. 

 

 

Sel­ma insists that peo­ple in Tunis need to talk. “We have God…we don’t need this bull­shit!” rants her uncle. In Paris, ratio­nal­izes Sel­ma, there were two oth­er psy­cho­an­a­lysts in her build­ing, and anoth­er ten on the same block. Thus, Tunis is where she can be of more ser­vice. There are obsta­cles though, and among them is the need to secure a med­ical license and busi­ness per­mit for her new prac­tice. Selma’s most­ly inef­fec­tu­al jour­ney with­in the bureau­cra­cy of the Min­istry of Health is both frus­trat­ing and fun­ny. When she asks a sec­re­tary there if her appli­ca­tion is in order, the response is a heav­en­ward glance, punc­tu­at­ed by “inshal­lah.” 

Mean­while, Sel­ma goes to the hair salon to offer psy­cho­analy­sis to the women there. As she describes a jour­ney to one­self, through an inner door that opens to hap­pi­ness and peace, she’s met with sar­casm and blank stares. But when she adds that she can be flex­i­ble with pay­ments, sud­den­ly every­one wants her busi­ness card. Despite an ini­tial show of dis­dain and dis­trust, patients line up to see her, and the prac­tice takes off. Selma’s treat­ment room dis­plays an array of diplo­mas, and a pic­ture of Freud in a fez whom few rec­og­nize. She impos­es strict rules of con­duct and bound­aries, and insists on usage of the for­mal vous, alto­geth­er earn­ing her a rep­u­ta­tion as a “post-colo­nial snob.” And yet the patients keep com­ing back. 

After the police learn that Sel­ma is prac­tic­ing with­out a license, which almost lands her in jail if not for her uncle’s bail pay­ment, her uncle orders her to go back to Paris! Dai­ly calls from her father in Paris beg her to come home. Instead, Sel­ma pleads her case anew to the sec­re­tary at the Min­istry of Health, who, unmoved, flat­ly implores God’s pro­tec­tion unto Selma.

 

 

The Tunisians in the film are fraught with post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­il­lu­sion­ment, suf­fer­ing from job­less­ness and socioe­co­nom­ic strug­gles, lone­li­ness, addic­tions, PTSD and para­noia, inter­per­son­al dis­cord, and inter­nal angst. Their dra­mas and trau­mas are revealed by quirky, unex­pect­ed twists, such as when one male patient drops his pants. Mis­un­der­stand­ing Selma’s ser­vices, his defense is that he’d heard about “the French woman with a sofa.” To this point, the Eng­lish film title, Arab Blues, is not near­ly as fit­ting as the lit­er­al trans­la­tion from French — “a sofa in Tunis.” One patient mus­es that the hori­zon­al posi­tion offered by the sofa lends to the psyche’s desire to open up. And anoth­er male patient takes com­fort in con­fess­ing his sex­u­al dreams about dic­ta­tors: Al-Assad, Mohammed VI, Sad­dam Hus­sein, and the name now on everyone’s lips, Putin. But, he says, “If I dream about that bas­tard Bush, I’ll throw myself out of a window!” 

As much as the film’s char­ac­ters moan about feel­ing stuck, scared, or want­i­ng to leave Tunisia, Sel­ma digs in and wants to stay. A cousin alludes to Selma’s father’s exile from Tunisia and her mother’s heart­break, and when the sto­ic Sel­ma even­tu­al­ly has an emo­tion­al melt­down, it’s plau­si­ble that Gol­shifteh Farahani’s onscreen sobs come from per­son­al grief asso­ci­at­ed with her ban­ish­ment from Iran. In 2012, Fara­hani appeared in a short, French film in which each actor involved makes a state­ment (corps et âmes) about their art by remov­ing a piece of cloth­ing of their choice. For her bit, Fara­hani dis­creet­ly flash­es a breast. Since then, death threats from the Islam­ic Repub­lic have ren­dered safe return to Iran impossible. 

For Fara­hani, France is now home. From an arti­cle in The Guardian in 2012 by Fiachra Gib­bons, the actress is quot­ed as say­ing, “For the first time in my life I appre­ci­at­ed being a woman. Paris is a city that lib­er­ates you as a woman from all your sins that you think you are guilty of, it wash­es away all of that, and you are free.” Farahani’s Sel­ma con­veys that sense of per­son­al lib­er­a­tion; she is unapolo­getic and behold­en to no one, for which oth­er female char­ac­ters in the film are envious. 

Just as the next phase of Tunisia is unclear, so too is the film’s out­come. While Arab Blues doesn’t pre­tend to answer the ques­tions that nec­es­sar­i­ly spring from a coun­try still in tran­si­tion, it doesn’t evade them either.  The mul­ti­lay­ered, mul­ti­cul­tur­al sto­ry­line is thought­ful and engag­ing, and the sound­track that includes Ital­ian music from the 1960s adds a per­fect touch to the not-quite-Tunisian, not-quite-French, but decid­ed­ly Mediter­ranean vibe.

 

angstArab cultureFreudpsychoanalysisTunisia

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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